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Someone acting like a jerk at the office? This may be your best option

Ever have the urge to turn a cold shoulder to someone you just can't listen to any more? Unleash a classic silent treatment? It's a childish impulse, right? Us grown-ups should know better.

Not necessarily. A new study "finds a notable exception when it comes to complete jackasses," as writer Misty Harris puts it, bluntly, in the Vancouver Sun. In that case, ostracize away.

Researchers in the psychology department of Baruch College at City University of New York have found that ditching a toxic dialogue can be good for you.

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The study involved two social experiments with almost 120 participants. They were asked to either snub or engage in polite conversation with someone who had been coached to act very likable or to act highly offensive, even bigoted, Harris reports.

After four minutes, study participants were taken to a private room to complete a task involving concentration and something called "thought regulation," she adds. Participants' performance took a hit when they ignored the likeable person. Their performance was significantly better when they shunned the person acting like a jerk. The researchers suggest that people really can drain the life out of you.

"It's depleting to force yourself to have difficult conversations when all you want to do is ignore the person," lead author Kristin Sommer, an associate professor of psychology, told Harris, adding that ostracism can help people conserve resources that they need for other purposes. The study appears in the current issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

In the study's conclusion, Sommer sums it up this way: "In contrast to the pervasive view of ostracism as a harmful behaviour, our research reveals that, at least in some circumstances, silence may be golden."

Sommer told Harris that this may only be a strategy to help people to avoid having their energy zapped by acquaintances; she doubts this is a great tack to take when it comes to loved ones.

"Certainly, the motive to avoid talking to a relationship partner or close friend can be there. We want to avoid certain discussions when we're really angry or hurt," she said. "But if you're concerned about preserving the relationship, ignoring that person could carry some long-term costs."

For now, though, it sounds like a brilliant approach to test out on public transit, in store line-ups or other high-risk-of-jerks zones.

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About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More

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